Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel overstates its case

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      A documentary by Brigitte Berman. Rated PG. Opens Friday, August 27, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas

      Although he addresses the camera as his saturnine 83-year-old self, the eternally elusive Playboy founder is naturally more compelling in his younger incarnation, amply represented in archival footage.

      Watch the trailer for Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.

      Written and directed by music-minded Canadian Brigitte Berman, who won an Oscar for Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got, this doc makes the case—overstating it, actually, in two hours—that Hugh Hefner was singularly pushing the libertarian envelope in the repressive 1950s. That’s when Playboy magazine first erupted, with that famous Marilyn Monroe centrefold. In the next decade—while he parlayed his vast readership into a luxurious lifestyle that became its own brand—Hefner was a gadfly on issues ranging from civil rights to drug laws and the obscene war in Vietnam, as testified to by urbane observers like Dick Cavett, Jesse Jackson, and Joan Baez.

      Hefner ran into trouble in the gender-busting 1970s, and so does the movie. Having a one-note griper like antiporn crusader Susan Brownmiller as your sole feminist voice is problematic. And when Jenny McCarthy is your only interviewee under 40, you know you’re in trouble. Indeed, the presence of some people, like the tut-tutting Pat Boone and KISS flogger Gene Simmons—by now his own Gahan Wilson cartoon—mostly serve as reminders of how time and sexual fashion have left the old Bunnymaster behind.

      No word is said about the advent of raunchier fare like Penthouse and Hustler, or even that newfangled Internet thing, leaving one with the impression that Hef is alone in an ivory-towered Xanadu, surrounded by machine-extruded blonds and scrapbooks full of, yep, great articles.

      The movie is most valuable, actually, for great clips from the TV series Playboy After Dark. Halfway in, you suddenly wish it was about Sammy Davis, Jr. instead.